The global COVID-19 pandemic that has altered operations for nearly every business in one form or another is finally beginning to subside. Although concerns over continued spread and new variances continues, cases are trending downward and vaccinations are trending upward.
Because of these encouraging trends, many employers are now asking themselves what they should do in terms of getting their employees back to the workplace. Some businesses may choose to permanently allow some or all of their employees to work from home. However, many other businesses are realizing that it’s time to start making plans to bring their remote workers back to the office on a regular basis.
In this post, we’ll discuss some key things that employers should consider as they make decisions and coordinate the logistics of safely bringing employees back to work.
Specifically, we’ll talk about:
- Public Health Best Practices
- Acknowledging the Adjustment Period for Employees
Testing for COVID-19 in employees has been a very expensive task for most businesses throughout the pandemic. Most businesses have left the testing to their local health departments and encouraged employees who have felt unwell to go through the standard public testing process rather than providing on-site or direct-to-employee testing. Fortunately, this is changing due to recent advances in rapid testing.
Advancements in our understanding of COVID-19 have led to rapid, at-home antigen tests that can be taken by consumers without requiring a prescription from a physician. These tests cost far less that other testing methods, and provide a much more practical tool for employers to encourage regular employee testing.
Employers should work with their HR and legal teams to determine how to best encourage or require that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccinations. Some ideas for encouraging vaccination include:
- Be flexible with time off for employees who may need to temporarily leave work to receive the vaccine, or who may need to take time off to take a dependent to get vaccinated.
- Consider providing an extra day of sick leave for employees who experience side effects from receiving the vaccine. If possible, expand this benefit for employees who may need to care for one of their dependents who experiences vaccine side effects.
- Offer cash bonuses or other prizes for employees who choose to be vaccinated.
- Reach out to local health departments to see what educational vaccine materials they have that you could share with employees. This will eliminate the need for staff to create such materials, and you’ll know that the information is accurate.
Public Health Best Practices
Even though the pandemic seems to be nearing its end, the reality is that we will still live in a “new normal,” at least for a period of time. This new normal will require special attention to basic public health best practices to ensure that there is no chance of a late-stage COVID outbreak in your office. Employers should consider the following public health best practices as employees return to the workplace:
- Continue to encourage or require masks at the office. The CDC will most likely continue to recommend that masks be worn for several more months as the pandemic subsides.
- Invest in an improved ventilation system. Studies have shown that buildings with higher quality filtration in their ventilation systems can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Encourage hand washing and sanitizing. This can be done by setting up extra hand cleansing stations or putting up signage in restrooms and other common, high-touch areas.
- Promote physical distancing. Consider rearranging the setup of your office so that employees can work at least six feet away from each other throughout the day. If it makes sense given the layout of your office, tape directional arrows on the floor to decrease close interactions as people move around.
As an added bonus, these strategies should also keep employees safe from other illnesses, such as influenza, moving forward.
Acknowledging the Adjustment Period for Employees
Employers should remember how hard the transition was for many employees when they shifted to primarily working from home. The sudden lack of face-to-face interaction with coworkers, the juggling of at-home school for children, and the sharing of office space with spouses were challenging adjustments to make.
Unfortunately, transitioning back to in-office work will most likely come with similar challenges. Consider the following examples that can be anticipated:
- Employees will have to readjust to a daily commute, which can cause stress because of lost time during the day.
- Some employees who are more introverted may have a hard time reengaging themselves socially around the office.
- Simple office norms and etiquette that were long taken for granted might have to be relearned in some workplaces.
- After avoiding gathering of people for so long, there will be some employees who experience anxiety as they return to being physically closer to more people throughout the day.
Employers should ask for feedback from employees to determine other company-specific challenges that employees anticipate with returning to the office. Plans should be made to take appropriate steps to help employees manage these challenges as they readjust to working on-site.
The light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is near. Within a few short months, many business leaders will start to encourage or require their employees to return to working in-person at the office. However, there are some key things employers should consider as they make these organizational adjustments:
- Provide rapid, affordable COVID-19 testing for employees.
- Encourage vaccinations by being flexible with time off, offering cash or other prizes for employees who get vaccinated, and curating existing vaccination educational materials. Of course, HR and legal council should be involved with any such program to ensure there are no violations of health privacy laws.
- Implement public health best practices such as requiring masks, improving ventilation systems, encouraging hand washing, and promoting physical distancing.
Remember that there will be an adjustment period before many employees feel fully comfortable returning to the office. Consult with employees to learn what challenges they anticipate with returning to the office, and make plans to help them overcome those challenges as comfortably as possible.